ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2024, Vol. 32 ›› Issue (7): 1057-1072.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2024.01057

• Conceptual Framework • Previous Articles     Next Articles

“Rat Race” or “Lying Flat”? The effect of competition stress on psychological compensation

WANG Wangshuai1, YI Yanxi2(), LUO Zhiwei1, LI Jie1   

  1. 1International Business School Suzhou, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou 215028, China
    2Graduate School of Economics, Osaka University, Osaka 5600043, Japan
  • Received:2024-03-22 Online:2024-07-15 Published:2024-05-09
  • Contact: YI Yanxi


In the modern society with rapidly accelerating pace, competition has become ubiquitous and intense. No doubt that competition can lead to aversive psychological stress. Interestingly, in response to the competition stress, individuals choose two contradictory compensation strategies, as some go “Rat Race”, while others do “Lying Flat”. Why do individuals make contrasting choices? Does it result from different types of stress? What are the psychological mechanisms and boundary conditions of the “Rat Race” and “Lying Flat” effects, respectively? In the current literature, none of these questions has been answered. Therefore, the core concepts of this research are competition stress and psychological compensation; the central story is to reveal the relationship between different types of competition stress and psychological compensation. More specifically, this research distinguishes the multi-dimensional attributes of competition stress. Based on the theory of psychological compensation, we then explore individuals’ compensation strategies when faced with different types of competition stress. The paper is structured into three main sections: (1) competition stress is a multi-dimensional concept, encompassing both competition result stress and competition process stress; (2) competition result stress leads to the fluid compensation strategy, which is termed as the “Rat Race” effect. The psychological mechanism of this effect is self-esteem threat, and the boundary condition is self-affirmation; (3) competition process stress drives the escapism compensation strategy, which is termed as the “Lying Flat” effect. The psychological mechanism of this effect is well-being threat, and the boundary condition is social support. This study marks the first attempt to identify different types of competition stress and examines how they respectively affect individuals’ compensation strategies. The present paper significantly contributes to the existing literature on competition stress, psychological compensation, self-esteem, and well-being. Moreover, research findings can guide companies’ marketing activities, promote individual well-being, and assist public policy making.

The research questions of this paper are rooted in practicality and real-world, and answering these questions in turn contributes to the extant literature in at least two ways. First, while existing research on competition stress has shed light on how it alters an individual’s physical and mental states, it portrayed competition stress as a unidimensional construct, overlooking its potential multidimensional nature. Moreover, prior studies have failed to explore individuals’ compensatory strategies under competition stress. Consequently, this research reveals the multidimensional attribute of competition stress, delineating it into competition result stress and competition process stress. Subsequently, how different types of competition stress lead to contrasting compensatory strategies are analyzed, including the “Rat Race” effect engendered by competition result stress and the “Lying Flat” effect prompted by competition process stress.

Second, this paper contributes to the literature on self-esteem and well-being. Specifically, regarding self-esteem, while previous research has primarily examined its direct influence on individuals, this study uncovers that self-esteem serves as the underlying psychological mechanism driving the “Rat Race” effect. In terms of well-being, despite being frequently investigated in extant research, yet it received less attention in explaining psychological compensation. Therefore, findings from the present research enrich the literature on well-being, expanding our understanding of its connections with competition stress and compensatory behaviors.

Aside from the theoretical contributions, the current research also provides practical implications in three ways. For enterprises, the psychological compensation behavior impelled by competition stress is shown to follow a traceable pattern, which can be leveraged for increasing market share and sales profits. For instance, product slogans aimed at individuals opting for “Rat Race” can aim to evoke their competitive mindset, while brands tailored to those embracing “Lying Flat” should emphasize concepts like escaping the “noise” and maintaining the inner peace. As for individuals, it is suggested that when faced with severe competition stress, individuals can restore psychological resources through recalling past successful experiences or seeking for the support from families and friends. Furthermore, for policymakers, given that over-competition may lead to negative outcomes, this research reminds policymakers to maintain a moderate competition level in the society and to make necessary interventions when necessary.

Key words: social competition, psychological compensation, self-esteem, well-being

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